On the morning of Tuesday 11th April 2023, Community of the Passion member Lya Vollering set off from Canterbury to begin walking the 1,800km pilgrimage trail known as the Via Francigena, which has Rome as its destination.
Walking an ancient path to the future, Lya does so as an act of ecological witness in the midst of our climate crisis, to call attention to the urgent need to heal and care for the earth, our common home.
Here we share her seventh week of reflections on the journey.
Thursday 25th May: Meeting my sister
Today, whilst walking, I was overtaken by a British pilgrim who moved so quickly, aided by two Nordic walking sticks and carrying very little luggage. A sleeping mat was sticking out of his small rucksack. We greeted one another in French and on he went. Later, I met him when he was checking his map. He wasn’t very talkative, but was eager to share that he had walked an average of 40 kilometers a day, having started at Canterbury three weeks ago. His preference was to camp wild.
It is interesting how many different ways there are to walk to Rome. Just ahead of me is a group of 12 Belgian people walking the Via Francigena. I’ve also met quite a few walking alone.
This week I am walking with my youngest sister Maria. I was waiting for her on Monday. The schedule was that she would arrive in Besançon around 3pm. I kept a close eye on the weather forecast. The day before we had heavy thunderstorms and a lot of rain. The same was forecast for Monday. We had hoped that once she had arrived we still could go walking and then wild camping. Luckily the weather forecast changed and there was only rain for the afternoon. We decided to go ahead with our plans. Unfortunately, however, they didn’t work out.
In the morning, I had vacated my room and asked if I could leave my rucksack until the afternoon. No problem. I went wandering the streets of Besançon. I kept meeting the same people as I went along. We nodded at one another. I had a conversation with a guy who had a kind and open face. He had asked me for money the day before. I had none. He smiled all the same. This time I had some change. He asked if I was on holiday. I explained that I was walking to Rome. Ah, he smiled, ‘The City of Faith’. He went on to speak about faith, but I didn’t really understand what he was saying.
For lunch, I had bought a salad at the local supermarket and decided to eat it in the park where I had seen people having their lunch. Sitting diagonally opposite to me was a man with hunched shoulders, his hands in his pockets. He sometimes looked in my direction but never made eye contact. On my left a lady, in her thirties I guess, sat down. She took a nicely ironed kitchen towel out of her bag and put it on her lap. Then she got a fancy looking tin lunch box out of her backpack and started to eat. I had my plastic tub of salad and a thin wooden spoon to eat it with.
At two o’clock, I went to the reception of the Diocesan Centre to pick up my rucksack. The very kind woman who had welcomed me on Friday was behind the desk. This time she was wearing a veil. She asked if I was going to Fucharans. The next place on the Via Francigena Route. Well , I said, that depends on how far my sister and I are able to walk today. She explained that a pilgrim had left his medication and needed it and he was in Fucharans. At that moment my sister called. Their was a train strike in Strasbourg and there were no trains going to Besançon. In all the confusion, she had got on the wrong train. She had to stay in Strasbourg and couldn’t travel to Besançon-Viotte until the next day. Such a disappointment!
I told her about the request to take medication to Fucharans and that we could meet tomorrow at Ornans where there was a bus stop. I was keen to get walking again and it felt good to be able to do a favour for someone. Doing a pilgrimage can be sometimes too self centred.
The religious sister at the desk was very happy when I told her I could take the medication. She wrapped it with care in ice and plastic. At 3.15pm, I started to walk the 20 Kilometres to Fucharans. It took me up a very steep hill to the Chapelle du Buis lo, which is a lovely, simple church with a wicker mat and plain chairs and prayer stools. It reminded me of Taize. I decided to charge my phone and recharge myself there. It was so good to be able to use a prayer stool again.
After this lovely quiet time I walked briskly down quiet lanes and roads, through lovely woodland and countryside. An elderly man was playing jeu de boules with a young boy. At a certain point, I was unsure of the route and asked a young man who was with his motorbike outside another church. He said he didn’t understand my question about Fucharans. I said: ‘la ville’. That was a mistake because it means town. I followed his instructions but realised I was walking north and I knew I had to go South. I followed my instinct and turned round, remembering what I had seen on the map before my phone died. It was getting late and the road was very quiet. I was worried about getting lost in the dark. I heard a car coming and put my hand up asking the driver to stop. He did. I asked about the road to Fucharans. Not far, he said, another 5 kilometres. Do you need help? Well, if you could give me a lift that would be helpful. He we asked where exactly I was going. I gave him the address of the gite. He realised I was only one kilometre away from it.
During the walk I had felt very pleased with myself carrying this important medication to someone in need of it. I expected to be greeted as a hero. Instead the French elderly man was pleased with the medication but not very appreciative towards me. The owner of the gite had left me a meal. The French man was quick to tell me I had to pay him for it and where I had to put the money for the use of the gite. No offer of making me a drink of any sort. They left me to my own devices. Oh well, I was still pleased I had done this favour.
My poor sister, meanwhile, was refused at two camping sites in Strasbourg and at 10pm finally had found shelter for the night in a hotel. We agreed that once she arrived in Besançon she would take the bus to Ornans. I would meet her there.
At 9.30am the next day, my sister arrived in Besançon and realised the bus wasn’t leaving until 12.30pm. I had suggested that she could try to thumb a lift. I had heard from other pilgrims that it is easy to do this in France.
I had a lovely walk through woodland. I saw beautiful bright pink orchids. I worried a bit about my sister. Hoping that the lifting will be ok and safe. I was walking towards the centre of Ornans when I heard my name called out. My sister. She was in the back of the car of an elderly couple who had given her a lift. What a perfect timing! We celebrated with coffee and pastries.
We marvelled together at the beauty of wild flowers and two stunning blue butterflies. The walk was gentle, alongside a river. We passed two small camping sites, run by the local council. We opted to stay at a third one nearer the end of the route for that day.
Friday 26th May: Switzerland and Summer
On Friday 26th of May, I walked with my sister into Switzerland. It felt like a genuine milestone. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much of a border: a sign, a wooden shed, probably used as a border post but now closed. I realised how artificial borders actually are. The landscape and language didn’t change. The currency , although euros are still accepted. My French SIM card stopped working which has made life awkward.
Yesterday, I also walked into Summer. The lilacs are fading, the roses are in full bloom. A farmer was harvesting hay and there was a definite scent of summer that’s hard to describe. There is a sweetness to it. My sister and I have been camping the whole week. Yesterday, for the first time we could sit outside without feeling cold. It was glorious. It felt like being on a holiday. The campsite was full with Swiss, German and some Dutch campers enjoying the Pentecost break.
Permit me to step back a little in time. On Wednesday we were planning to walk to Pontarlier. A walk that meant climbing over 600 metres to the source of the river Loue. On the app there was a warning that there was a deviation to the route because of falling rocks. Dutifully, we followed the diversion sign and got lost in the woods. We were on a hill and climbed the steep path before having to descend on our bottoms because it was too steep to walk down. It felt a bit dangerous, so we consulted Google maps and found the old route, which enabled us to ignore the diversion signs. This felt much safer! It was a stunningly beautiful path along the river with its cascades up to the source. The path was narrow and sometimes close to the cliff. It was a warm day but the trees provided us with gentle shade. Once we reached the source, we met more people and it became clear that you could reach there by car too. However, it was however worth the climb.
We still had a long way to go to reach Pontarlier. When we finally arrived in the late afternoon, we had run out of supplies and considered having a meal in a cafe. We struggled to find the town centre and in the end we decided to go directly to the campsite, just an hours walk from Pontarlier. I had seen in my guide that the campsite had a cafe. We could eat there I thought. We were exhausted when we arrived to discover that the cafe was closed. After putting up our tents, Maris fetched the remaining supplies from her bag: 1 packet of noodles, 1 packet of instant rice and a packet of powder for curry sauce. We prepared it all and when finished we decided that it was a nice starter. We made porridge and than we made a second pot. After that it was bed time.
Sunday 28th May: Yoghurt
On Pentecost Sunday (28/5/23) I swam in the Lake Geneva. I have now reached Lausanne. Early this morning I said goodbye to my sister at the station at Yverdon- des- Bains. She had booked her train from there to return to The Netherlands. I went back to the route of the Via Francigena.
Let me continue with the story of this week… On Thursday we continued our walk towards Jougne. How grateful we were when, not far from the campsite, we came across a bakery with pain au chocolate and coffee. We also bought some bread and a sandwich baguette. The last one was eaten at 11 am, so we were not too worried about lunch. We knew we would eventually reach a village with a shop. We only had to make sure we reached it before closing time at 2pm. We got a bit confused with the signage on the route and the map on the app. They didn’t correspond. The walk was longer than expected but we did manage to arrive in the village of Fourge before 2pm. We found that the shop had closed at 12.45pm. We pushed our noses against the shop window and marvelled at the beautiful display of nuts and fresh vegetables. The shop would reopen at 3.30pm. Should we wait? We had a look around the village, where all the cafes were closed. We saw a sign for a fromagerie. It too was closed, but next to it was a vending machine with a selection of cheeses. On the bottom row we saw yogurt and thought how nice it would be to have some. We agreed on buying two. With our new-found ‘treasures’ we went to sit on the steps of the local church.
Maris took a spoonful of the yogurt and made a strange sound. She asked me to try some. I did and found that it was cheese spread. We had bought 800 grams of cheese spread! Such an excess of something I never wanted to eat again. We laughed out loud. We noticed that the cheese spread containers did look like the ones with yogurt in. Anyway, Maris kindly put the 800 grams in her rucksack and we continued onwards. We were walking through a ski resort. It felt strange on a warm day to be walking through a landscape with green ski pistes and vans with pictures of people in ski outfits.
Feeling hungry, we arrived at the campsite in Hospitaux Neuf. We put up our tents. Maris went to do the shopping in the nearby supermarket. We turned the cheese spread into ‘cheese fondue‘ and ate it with lots of raw vegetables. Our tummies content, we went retired for the night. It was too cold to stay outside.
Monday 29th May: Three Suns & The Lake
Yesterday, on the shore of the lake, I heard loud music in different languages from many speakers which was accompanied by the the smell of cooked meat. There were lots of happy faces amongst the many people gathered there to enjoy the sun over the long weekend. It was such a contrasting scene after the quietness of France. This morning, Pauline (my fellow Dutch pilgrim) and I were on the road at 7.15am, making the most of the coolness at the start of the day. We were not alone. Early joggers and dog walkers were present too.
Our route took us alongside the lake with a clear view of the Alps. After a two-hour walk, we were ready for coffee. At a cafe, we saw the two Frenchmen for whom I had couriered medication. They asked about my sister, which was nice. They had finished their coffee and were ready to move on. Then, we saw two other pilgrims – Patrick from England and Gary from Ireland. I asked the usual questions about where they had started and where they were heading to. Gary had started in Kilkenny and Patrick in Dover. Both were going to Rome. Pauline asked about the condition of their feet. Gary told us he had made the mistake of walking in shoes that were too small for him. Despite having changed to larger ones, he still had blisters. I offered him my sister’s sheep wool. A pilgrim had told me that untreated sheep wool helps to prevent blisters. My eldest sister had provided me with some of her sheep’s wool. Now I and two other pilgrims are walking around with her wool cushioning our toes and feet. Consequently, my feet are less sore. I hope that Gary finds it to be of some benefit.
Our path took us up the hill again and amongst terraced vineyards. The Romans were the first to grow wine in this area. However, the Cistercians brought the Chasselas vines to the Dezelay hillsides to take advantage of ‘the three suns’: The sun itself, the heat emitted by the walled terraces, and the light reflected from the lake. I experienced ‘three suns’ too!
We arrived at our host family in Corseaux, near Vevey. They offer one bedroom for pilgrims. They agreed to my request to pitch my tent in their garden. This kind couple have a three-year-old daughter. We arrived early and took the opportunity to go for another swim in the beautiful capacious lake with the Alps as a backdrop. Tomorrow we will head in the direction of these mountains.
You can follow Lya’s weekly updates here.
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